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Stunning and Sultry:

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Anna Stromberg and Mike O’Neil star in ‘Venus in Fur.’ Courtesy photo

Anna Stromberg and Mike O’Neil star in ‘Venus in Fur.’ Courtesy photo

Venus in Fur
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
June 6-23
Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. • Sun., 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.
$23-25 • www.bigdawgproductions.org

T
he Imaginary Theater Company is back and exploring some very real themes with their current offering, “Venus in Fur” by David Ives at Big Dawg’s Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street.

The two-person show stars Anna Stromberg and Mike O’Neil. O’Neil plays Thomas, a playwright/director auditioning actresses for his adaptation of the infamous novella “Venus in Furs” by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. After a fruitless afternoon, he is on the brink of going home when Vanda (Stromberg) tumbles through the door. As they read her audition scene together, a subtle folding and blending of story within story, person within image, and power within strength begins to play out between them. The script is skillfully crafted, a fantastic and erudite conception that literature lovers will adore.

Published in 1870, “Venus in Furs,” the novella, has been filmed five times, and David Ives’ play has been adapted for cinema by Roman Polanski. There must be something at the core of this work that speaks to the fundamental questions of human experience for it to continue to provoke artistic discussion. Ives’ play, particularly, is fascinating.

O’Neil is not a likeable character at any point in the show, at least not for me. We meet him whining and watch him become a tyrant, a monster, a vulnerable child, a wounded lover and a sadist. It’s a lot of ground to cover. I am repeatedly surprised to hear people in life, when confronted with evidence of the evil of those they know, say things like, “But she seemed so nice!” or “He was such a fun guy!”

Con men do not succeed by being unlikeable. Real malfeasances require great charm in order to work their plans and destroy our lives. Here O’Neil succeeds with gusto: He is groomed, attractive, open, intelligent, and non-threatening. All of which makes his slow reveal and transformation all the more terrifying and revolting.

Stromberg hits just about every note on the gamut of human emotion in the course of this show. Outside of the shock value that her costuming elicits, she is a childish little girl, a frighteningly royal queen, a goddess, a teacher, a middle-class housewife, a bad-ass lower-class hustler, and a multitude of other guises wrapped into one. Her changes of emotion and person begin at an almost feverish pace and gradually coalesce into a sustained note that builds. Did I mention she also does this all in high heels?

There are so many subtle elements that are necessary for this show to work. Director Lee Lowrimore really understands pacing—the rhythm is phenomenal as it slowly builds to what only can be described as a climax. There are no moments in the 90-minute piece where the audience becomes bored enough to check out mentally or emotionally. It is absolutely essential to find performers who really perform and connect with this work, because it isn’t just the exceptionally well-written dialogue that makes it work. It’s the tension that crackles across the stage.

Lowrimore does a wonderful job of placing them far apart, making the audience really feel the energy between them, then bringing them closer and closer together only to send them hurtling away. When O’Neil backs Stromberg into a corner by the door, I was completely prepared to jump out of my seat if necessary and defend her, because I was totally prepared for him to try to rape her on stage. Fear welled out of her eyes, and she convinced me she thought the same.

Inexperienced directors are scared of silence on stage, which is not so for Lowrimore, who knows silence can speak volumes. When O’Neil draped Stromberg in a “fur” as she lounged on the divan, you could hear a collective intake of breath—the room was a live wire of anticipation. Both O’Neil and Stromberg must need a lot of quiet time alone after the show to come down from this, because it looks mentally and emotionally taxing.

The Cape Fear Playhouse is an incredibly intimate space, which makes a show like this all the more overwhelming with no physical distance from the performers. When Stromberg bends over wearing a merry widow, fishnets and mesh panties, it is mere feet from the front row. Blessed with a gorgeous body, Stromberg must have a tremendous amount of self-confidence to do this at such close quarters with a roomful of strangers night after night.

Jeff Loy’s lighting is always great. I love his lightening and “subtle fireplace glow.” Not that I am a theatre-goer who is bothered by the leap of imagination, but that the details on the spare set were paid such close attention—down to the fuse box for the light switches in the converted sweat-shop turned loft—it was really the icing on the cake.

Needless to say, this is not an appropriate play to take children to, or even really adolescents. What is being discussed is not so much sex, but power on a very deep, subtle, fundamental and experiential level. I agree with Lowrimore’s observation that far more is physically revealed on the beach in the summer. It’s not about titillation, rather than a sexy prelude to a hot and heavy evening. It is a very deep discussion of questions at the very core of human relationships. It is absolutely worth the admission to see this provocative script, talented performers, and exquisitely executed production.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Mark Jeffrey Miller

    June 5, 2013 at 7:43 am

    Gwenyfar Rohler’s review of Venus in Fur is complete. Anna Stromberg is an instrument to behold. Her adroitness, subtlety and strength are palpable. Mike O’Neil is a malignant and fitting match for her power until the end. The only addition I would make would be to go to this show. Go.

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